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Comparison of Wordsworth's Treatment of Nature with that of Hardy
In this piece of work I will look at William Wordsworth's response to nature and compare it to that of Thomas Hardy. The material by Wordsworth that I will use for this will be the five "Lucy" poems given in the compilation of Wordsworth prose and poetry edited by John Butt and "To a Skylark". I will also look at "The Darkling Thrush" and "Afterwards" by Hardy. Wordsworth was born in Cumberland in 1770. Throughout his life he made many tours of Europe, during one of which - a trip to Germany from October 1798 to April 1799 - he wrote four of the "Lucy" poems. "I travelled among unknown men" was written later. Of all the "Lucy" poems, "Three years she grew in sun and shower" is most explicitly about nature, and deals with both Lucy's relationship to it and her death. The poem starts by telling us that at the seemingly arbitrary age of three years, Nature declared Lucy to be the loveliest flower ever to be seen sown on earth. Nature therefore resolves to "take" Lucy (unmistakably a reference to Lucy's death). Although Nature makes this resolution when Lucy is three years old, it does not mean she dies at the age of three. Indeed, Nature says she "will make/ A lady of my own". In the second stanza we see many instances of contrasting extremes. Nature decides to be "Both law and impulse" (line 8) to Lucy. She will act on her "in rock and plain/ In earth and heaven, in glade and bower" (lines 9-10)and will induce her to "kindle or restrain" (line 12). There is also evidence of this later in the poem - compare " the motions of the storm" (line 22) and the murmuring of rivulets. The instances on lines 9-10 (as well as the last one) suggest a wide ranging exposure to nature, as does the example in the first line "in sun and shower". The third stanza says that she will have the vitality of a "fawn/ That wild with glee across the lawn/ Or up the mountain springs". She will also have the "breathing balm" and the "silence and the calm of mute insensate things".
The message in these two stanzas is that the natural world is a complex system involving the interaction of opposing forces. The third stanza, to be more specific, suggests that the human response to nature should involve both exuberant physical appreciation and a peaceful and quiet communion with it. This communion should take place in solitude - "she shall lean her ear/ In many a secret place" (line27).
The idea of death still appears in both stanzas. "Earth and heaven" implies that Lucy would feel nature's presence in life as well as in death. Furthermore, "the silence and the calm/ Of mute insensate things" refers not only to the serenity inherent in nature, but the tranquillity of death. This shows that not only will nature not leave Lucy when she dies, but her death is a necessary final consummation of their relationship.
The poem continues over the following three stanzas by describing how nature will "mould" Lucy. In the final stanza, nature has stopped speaking, and we are left with the poet's personal reflections. Wordsworth laments her death (referred to explicitly for the first time in this verse) and is upset about the brevity of her life. He evidently wanted to have Lucy to himself, but so did nature. The finality of line 37 "Thus Nature spake - the work was done" indicates that nature was by far the more powerful and superior of the two. It also shows at the same time that Wordsworth was resigned to her death. He acknowledges that which was implied earlier in the poem - Lucy's life and relationship with nature has reached a fitting conclusion. His reference to her life as a "race" being "run" implies that it is apt that her life should end and that she should become one with nature. Wordsworth also refers to his perception of the natural world now that Lucy is gone. Again we see contrasting forces at work. All that Lucy leaves behind is a "calm and quiet scene" which is a painful reminder of "what has been/ And never more will be". Wordsworth can, however, draw consolation from the familiar landscape associated with Lucy and the memories it brings.
"A slumber did my spirit seal" is an intriguingly ambiguous poem, its simplicity of language allowing for many interpretations. In one interpretation that I can think of Wordsworth starts by telling us that he used to be in a "slumber"- a temporary dream-like delusion - which sealed his spirit - gave him a false sense of security. At the time he did not have any "human fears" - any fears about Lucy's mortality- and the serenity of this state is emphasized by the alliteration of the sibilants. The rest of the first stanza expands on the illusion which with hindsight he acknowledges is erroneous.
The second stanza describes Wordsworth's shock as he awakes from his slumber to find that Lucy is humanly inert. She is now an inanimate object (ironically similar to the "thing" of the first stanza) which, like a piece of rock, remains passively on the earth as it continues to revolve. She can therefore exact no "motion" or "force" of her own, but is acted upon by the impersonal, unending forces of the universe which incessantly persist in the same unchanging manner until the end of time.
There is no reason, however, to think that the first stanza must refer to a time before Lucy's death. If it is set after her death, the slumber referred to could be Lucy's death itself. The first line would therefore mean that Lucy's death (the "slumber") indelibly imprinted ("sealed") an idea (which is to be expounded later in the poem) on his soul (his "spirit"). After her death, he no longer needed to fear that she may have any human constraints, such as mortality. Although he no longer had any direct contact with her, it seemed to him that she would now become free from the vicissitudes of daily life, free from time, which catches up with all those of us who live on earth.
The first stanza describes the insight that he received shortly after Lucy's death, and so is written in the past tense. The second stanza elaborates on this, with truths that still pertain when the poem is written, and is therefore written in the present. He reflects that although she no longer moves, hears or sees, she has been elevated and ennobled by her union with the timeless and eternal forces and elements of nature.
Although I have dealt with these two interpretations separately, that does not mean to say that the various elements of one interpretation are not compatible with those of the other. Indeed, I have chosen the first interpretation to have all the pessimistic elements, and the second interpretation to have all the optimistic elements. The interpretation which I actually favour the most is an amalgamation of the two.
First of all, the interpretation of line 1 which I prefer is that which can be found in the optimistic interpretation (i.e. that Lucy's death indelibly imprinted an idea on his soul). In such a short poem, I think Wordsworth would be concentrating on a more important and consequential event, one which would leave a lasting impression on his soul. It is true that the poets "slumber" referred to in the pessimistic interpretation might also lead to the same sort of impression, but if I were to choose the most likely cause between the two possibilities, Lucy's death seems to be the most affecting candidate.
The following three lines, however, should be understood in the same way as in first interpretation, even though there is no previous reference to the "slumber" of the poet. I think it quite plausible that Wordsworth should set the scene by telling the reader that Lucy's death had a great effect on him, and then go on to describe the delusive notion that he had had prior to her death. Furthermore, I think it is far more convincing that the word "seemed" is expressing the deceptive nature of his idea.
As for the second stanza, I prefer the second interpretation. As can be seen in other poems, such as "Three years she grew in sun and shower" Lucy's passing on to join the vital forces of nature should be understood positively.
The ambivalence inherent in the poem conveys another idea common to "Three years she grew in sun and shower". This is that although Lucy's demise should be viewed positively, his acceptance of it is marred by her loss, and the grief he feels. This can be implied from the first line as I preferred to interpret it.
The next poem involves a self-deceptive notion similar to that referred to in the previous one. The delusion of the last three lines of the first stanza of "A slumber did my spirit seal" resembles closely the misconception described in lines 5-6 of "Strange fits of passion have I known". Here, Wordsworth compares Lucy to a rose. Roses wither and die, but Wordsworth does not acknowledge this in Lucy saying that she "looked everyday/ Fresh as a rose in June". This fallacious idea is implied to be such by the use of the word "when", which suggests that she no longer appears so. Furthermore lines 17-18 are reminiscent of the poet's slumber of the first interpretation.
Throughout the poet's journey, he gazes at the moon. The descending moon ought to remind him of (if anything) the passage of time, and, consequently, mortality. However, his reverie (which ironically is at least partially induced by the moon) keeps him blissfully oblivious of both of these. It never occurred to him that the process of the moon's descent would inevitably lead to its disappearance below the horizon. When it does so, Wordsworth is shocked into acknowledging Lucy's mortality, by an association between her and nature. Her intimacy with nature is suggested by recurrent natural imagery. For example she is compared to a rose, and Wordsworth has to pass by an orchard-plot and ascend a hill to reach her cottage. This natural imagery and consequently implied distance from other people also helps to enforce an idea which could be found in "Three years she grew in sun and shower"- that Lucy lived and communed with nature in seclusion.
This is a major theme of "She dwelt among the untrodden ways". Her remoteness from human society is conveyed in lines 1("untrodden ways") 3 ("none to praise") 4 ("very few to love") and line 9. The rather cold and matter-of -fact reference to her death in line 10 suggests the world's indifference to her. Her comparison with a half hidden violet again carries the suggestion of being unnoticed.
This is the third time we see her being compared to a flower. As far as Wordsworth is concerned, I am sure this is a great compliment. He also claims that she is "fair as a star, when only one/ Is shining in the sky". This reference to a star may be significant as it echoes Dante's Divine Comedy in the significance it attaches to stars. The grief that Wordsworth feels at the loss of she who he prized so much is expressed very effectively by the simplicity of language and directness of approach evident in the final two lines.
In the final poem Lucy is not mentioned until the second half. He starts by conveying his sense of alienation when abroad by referring to "unknown men" (line 1), vaguely naming the destination of his travels (Germany in this case) "lands beyond the sea" and calling his experience "that melancholy dream" (line 5). Lines 2-3 (Nor England! Did I know till then/ What love I bore to thee") and 6-8 (Nor will I quit thy shore/ A second time; for still I seem/ To love thee more and more") show that his absence from England has allowed him to appreciate his attachment to his homeland. The second half of the poem shows that his affection for England derives for a large part from the association between his home and Lucy. Nature is unsurprisingly a necessary and inherent part of this affection, as can be seen from lines 9-10 ("Among thy mountains did I feel/ The joy of my desire"). Wordsworth credits England with being able to show or conceal (seemingly at will) the "bowers where Lucy played", and with being in possession of the "last green field/ That Lucy's eyes surveyed". He uses the words "thee", "thy" and "thine" when referring to England as a mark of respect. However, I am sure that Wordsworth was aware that a universal nature which acted in England and Germany alike was to be credited for both of these, but clearly Wordsworth could not appreciate a nature that was not associated with Lucy, and nature was only associated with Lucy in England - where she lived.
The struggle between grief for Lucy's death and acceptance of her union with nature is not present as in other poems. Given those extra years, Wordsworth seems to have accepted Lucy's death.
The last poem by Wordsworth that I will look at is the ode "To a Skylark". The same language of reverence that was used for England in the last "Lucy" poem can be seen here when referring to the skylark (e.g. line 2 - "dost thou").He starts by asking the bird whether he (I will assume that the bird is male) has contempt for the earth below him with all its troubles. He then offers the alternative that the skylark affiliates himself with both celestial and terrestrial realms. Wordsworth associates different parts of the skylark with different realms - the wings bring the skylark up in the sky, but the heart and eye are with the nest on the ground.
The second stanza starts with a comparison of the nightingale and the skylark. The former is quickly dismissed as a creature of the darkness and gloom. Keats also associates the nightingale with "shadows numberless," "the forest dim", "verdurous glooms", "embalmed darkness", etc. in his "Ode to a Nightingale". Wordsworth claims that the skylark is surrounded by so much blinding light that we do not see him (which is what the Bible claimed of God) and so he can enjoy the same privacy as the shadowy nightingale. He goes on to say that from this high point the skylark pours upon the world a "flood of harmony". He attaches religious significance to the song, just as he found wider meaning in the plaintive song of the solitary reaper. This religious significance echoes the first line of the poem, where Wordsworth says that the skylark is a minstrel of the heavens and a "pilgrim of the sky". He ends by answering the question he put in the first stanza. The skylark does indeed belong to both realms - he is "true to the kindred points of heaven and home". We too, therefore, can aspire to greater, heavenly things, whilst we tend to our terrestrial concerns. "The Darkling Thrush" by Hardy is, like "To a Skylark" a poem about a bird. It was written at the turn of the nineteenth century, as can be seen from the second line of the second verse. At such a time, many people would feel like celebrating the arrival of the new century, but Hardy pessimistically refers to the century's corpse. The poem was written in winter, and therefore, the land has "sharp features", the sky is like a "cloudy canopy", and it is windy. All of the first half of the poem has this gloomy wintry feel. The "tangle bine-stems" are like "strings of broken lyres" representing the imperfection in nature around him. The outside environment is so unwelcoming that "all mankind that haunted nigh/ Had sought their household fires". This dreary wintry description is interrupted by the "full-hearted evensong" of a small bird. The thrush is described as "aged", "frail, gaunt and small", and having a "blast-beruffled plume". The thrush is not very strong or powerful yet he "flings his soul" on his unpleasant environment through his song. Hardy could see so little justification or inspiration for the bird to sing thus, that he wondered if the bird knew of some "blessed Hope" that Hardy was ignorant of. In this way, the small inconsequential bird is superior to Hardy, if we choose to interpret the second half of the poem in this way.
If we look at the last verse again, he says that the fact that there is so little cause for the bird to sing joyfully would make him think that the bird has access to some hope which Hardy does not know about. However, this still leaves the possibility that the bird does not know of any "blessed Hope", and that it is just a simple animal who, as it is programmed, sings its "evensong" (note that he chooses this word - part of a faith he did not believe in ). Nevertheless, I prefer to interpret it in the former manner. The hope is referred to explicitly, whereas the second possibility is implicit, and is not mentioned directly. In "Afterwards", Hardy considers what people will think of him when he dies. The interpretation of the first line is not obvious, but I think it refers to when the present time has closed a gate or a door on his stay on the earth, i.e. when he is dead. The stanza continues by suggesting a natural phenomenon which could coincide with his death. A different one is suggested in each stanza. In the descriptions of each natural phenomenon, an appreciation of all of the small details is evident. He hopes to be remembered as "a man who used to notice such things", and who "strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm."
None of the pessimism that may be found in his other poems is here. That is not what he wants to be remembered for. This poem displays a touching humility; he simply wanted to be thought of as a man who took notice of and appreciated nature.
Considering Hardy's poetic response to nature in general is not as easy as doing so with Wordsworth. Hardy wrote about many themes, including love, war, death etc., and there are fewer poems by Hardy that concentrate on nature. For Wordsworth, on the other hand, nature is a particularly important theme. I do not know of any poem by Wordsworth that does not at least involve nature. Even such poems as "To my sister" which one would not expect to include any mention of nature, refers to the "redbreast" that "sings from the tall larch" and "the bare trees and mountains bare / And grass in the green field".
It seems to me that Wordsworth's ideas and feelings about nature have evolved as he has grown, whereas I have not noticed any such change in Hardy's opinion, which is not surprising if Hardy did not concentrate on nature so much. There seem to be two major responses that Wordsworth has to nature. The first one seems to have been ever present from his youth and remained constant in importance throughout his life. The other developed in him during his formative years. Two poems in which both feelings towards nature are evident are "Three years she grew in sun and shower" and the "Lines written in early spring" which are to be found on page 99 of the aforementioned Wordsworth anthology. In both poems a physical, more superficial appreciation of nature is seen. In the "Lines written in early spring" he hears "a thousand blended notes"; he believed that "every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes"; and it seemed to him that every movement of the birds was "a thrill of pleasure". As explained earlier, the third stanza of "Three years she grew in sun and shower" starts by describing the exuberant physical enjoyment of nature that will be Lucy's. This is the first response referred to above.
The third stanza of "Three years she grew in sun and shower" ends with reference to the "silence and the calm / Of mute insensate things". In "Lines Written in Early Spring" Wordsworth says that "To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul that through me ran". The second response maintains that the human soul and the natural world are part of the same unity. To fully appreciate it, silent and solitary communion with the natural world was necessary. Implicit suggestions that Lucy engaged in this appeared in varying degrees of obscurity in "Three years she grew in sun and shower", "Strange fits of passion have I known", "She dwelt among the untrodden ways" and "I travelled among unknown men".
These implicit suggestions are explained in the analyses of the separate poems.
This unity is a dynamic, vital, powerful force which actively linked "her fair works" and "The human soul", and which actively "Rolled" Lucy round the earth when she no longer had any force of her own, and which had the power to show or conceal the "bowers where Lucy played".
To take this a step further, the "Lines written in early spring" in particular suggest that Wordsworth was a pantheist, not simply because of the unity of nature suggested, but because of the theological aspect of the final stanza. The religious significance attached to the skylark further supports this, but the suggestion that man is at a distance from God (and the skylark is nearer) contradicts the idea.
Wordsworth believed that these responses should go in tandem, an idea which was expressed most obviously in the third stanza of "Three years she grew in sun and shower". No effort seemed necessary to bring about the first, but the growth of the second can be observed in the "Prelude". For example, when he is skating, we see that the element of exhilarating physical activity is present from the start - he is "Proud and exulting, like an untired horse". It was quite often the case that "from the uproar I retired/ Into a silent bay", or "sportively/ Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng". Wordsworth tells of how he stopped on one occasion to find that the cliffs he could see in the distance apparently continued to move with him. The reason for this was that his recent movement gave him this impression. However it would not be correct to describe this impression as illusory - the cliffs were indeed moving since they were being rotated about the earth's axis and sent in an orbit around the sun (as was the rest of the planet). One could suggest that during a moment of solitude and tranquillity he gained insight through the link, the union between his soul and nature. The ever present aspect of the first more superficial response to nature can be seen in "My heart leaps up when I behold" on page 179 of Butt's Wordsworth anthology. The gift of this particular response to nature has been his since his childhood (to which he is indebted for this). One may suggest that Wordsworth is thinking of his appreciation of nature in general with his reference to his heart leaping up when he beholds a rainbow. I do not, however, feel this to be the case - simply noticing nature is not the same as communing with it. He hopes that this will stay with him right up to the end of his life.
We see from "Afterwards" that it did stay with Hardy to the end of his life, and that he wished to be remembered for it when he died. However he only shows signs of the first response. I believe that we all possess the first response, but to varying degrees. If you, like Hardy, notice the "glad green leaves" of May, "Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk" or when the "dewfall- hawk comes crossing the shades to alight/ Upon the wind-warped upland thorn", or when a "hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn", "during some nocturnal blackness , mothy and warm", then you certainly possess this response to an impressive degree. If we, as Wordsworth entreats us to do in "The Tables Turned", "come forth, and bring with you a heart/ That watches and receives" we too can be as perceptive as Hardy, or, better still, experience that silent, solitary communion with the unity of nature that Wordsworth writes of.
- Quote paper
- Sanjay Joshi (Author), 2000, Comparison of Wordsworth's Treatment of Nature with that of Hardy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/95787